Summer of Feminista: Chicanas who spoke out and inspire

My name is Linda Garcia Merchant and I am an expert at understanding the importance of giving voice to our Latina history because I have made four films about that very thing. I am the Technical advisor for the ‘Chicana Por Mi Raza Digital Humanities Project’, a five year project through the University of Michigan Latino/a Studies Department. Our project will create a virtual library of materials and interviews of Chicana activists working during the period of 1965-1985.

I believe that there are a number of pioneering women that would never define themselves as Latina intellectuals but live their lives in just that way. Women that process the knowledge of books and academics and then find a point in their continuously oppressed everyday lives where they move forward to action. When they make the statement, ‘Ya! Enough is enough. Our lives, the lives of our children and parents and husbands and partners must change’.

As a documentary filmmaker with a focus on pioneering Latina women, I get to experience incredible personas in very normal settings. When I get to meet them, it is long after they’ve been in movements or made great impacts on life. I get to see them in the reflective moments, where there is still fire and passion but it is regulated by introspection and some editorial. Sometimes it is surrounded by caution, the wounds are just that deep.

What I find the most interesting about all of these women is how matter of fact they are about what they’ve done. Ask any one of these women what motivated them to take action, organize, protest, and make change and you get what I like to call, ‘the look’.

Ask ‘Chicana Feminist’ author Martha Cotera about Colegio Jacinto Trevino, an alternative college for Mexicans in the South East Texas Valley founded in the early 1970s, or about starting a third political party even earlier than that and her response is a look that says, ‘why wouldn’t we have done those things’?
To then go to lunch with Martha, Rosie Castro and Alma Garcia and hear the stories of El Partido Raza Unida. Their adventures with canvassing the get on the ballot, learning how to legally create a third political party, and never forgetting that this entire group of activists were under 30 years old at the time!

Ask Anna Nieto Gomez or Keta Miranda, why commandeer two station wagons full of young California women to cross five states to attend the first national conference of Chicanas in Houston Texas and their response is that same look that says, ‘how could we not be a part of that moment?’ To hear Virginia Martinez tell of hearing Graciela Olivarez speak at this conference and saying to herself, ‘I can do this. I can go to Law School, I can be a lawyer.’

Ask Pauline Martinez, Legislative Chair of the Texas Womens Political Caucus how she managed to get State Representative Irma Rangel elected and she will tell you that it was not easy to convince her to do it, but they did because, at the time, ‘Irma was the only one’.

Or my own mother, Rhea Mojica Hammer, unafraid of the Daley Machine, running for Congressional office, through death threats and black listing by her employers, taking on the challenge because as she says ‘none of the men would do it’.

Time and time again, these women demonstrate a fearless charge to revolution. Not for gain, or personal accolade, for each one of them experienced far more criticism, contempt and betrayal than acknowledgement or even approval. Many times the betrayers were members of their own sex and culture. To do the work and take the challenge on, because it was necessary.

What has made each one of these interviews special is that there is in every one of these women an overflow of love and ‘cariño’ to those of us in the middle of our own revolution, documenting each of their stories, one Latina Feminista at a time. I suspect there is camaraderie, a sisterhood if you will between these women and any other activist because activism is a very lonely profession.

Now as elders, I hear their thoughts on our bridge generation and their analysis of the activism coming out of our children’s generation. They are our mentors, guiding us more in general terms than specifically suggesting a path or choice. They feed us from wisdom and experience, all with love and humor. Their knowledge continues to grow, spiritually and comprehensively through teaching and reading and writing.

Yes, there are many Latina intellectuals but they are not defined by any one accomplishment or achievement and in many ways are not from the traditional academic trajectory. Perhaps it is because they have had to be so many things to so many people that their presence as intellectuals can be transparent.

What I do know, on a personal level is that I love everyone of these women I’ve helped to interview. I love them for their intellect, their passion, their sacrifices and their genuine cariño to me, the middle aged, struggling activista in the middle of my own revolution.

Summer of Feminista 2011 is a project where Latinas are sharing their thoughts on Latinas as Public Intellectuals. Liberal. Conservative. Academic statements. Personal stories. Learn more or how you can join the Summer of Feminista. This is a project of Viva la Feminista. Link and quote, but do not repost without written permission.